Students Protest Presence of IDF Soldiers on Campus

Photo Courtesy of Gabriella Gagliano

On Feb. 28, in front of College Terrace, hundreds of students, organizers and community members gathered to protest the presence of three service members of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) at an event hosted by the Students Supporting Israel New Paltz chapter.

Students Supporting Israel (SSI) is a “pro-Israel international campus movement that supports the State of Israel,” according to the front page of their website. According to the group, while they are not recognized by the Student Association on campus, they are working with the support of the Jewish Student Union for the purpose of bringing awareness to antisemitic sentiments on campus, in the context of the war between Israel and Hamas. Angelina Palumbo, vice president of the Jewish Student Union, hoped the event would “make sure everybody really understands what’s happening.” She emphasized striking a balance between the two sides.

The protest was organized in reaction to this event by New Paltz Students for Palestine and PaliPaltz, two organizations seeking to foster solidarity and support for the people of Palestine. They were supported by other local businesses and groups such as the New Paltz Women in Black. They organized with help from Celebrate845 who has played a part in previous demonstrations. The protest was planned shortly following the announcement of the event by SSI.

The protestors gathered behind the Atrium as organizers explained the plan and procedures for safety, highlighting the need to not engage with police and potential counter protestors by remaining peaceful. Masks and signs were handed out amongst the crowd before they began marching across campus to College Terrace. Amy Trompetter from the Redwing Blackbird Theater in Rosendale, an activist puppet theater, brought life-sized deer puppets and recruited protestors to march with them. These puppets were a symbol of peace which served as a “role model for us of how we could live together.”

When they reached College Terrace about 15 police officers awaited, lined up with traffic barricades and other university staff members. Protestors with megaphones, signs and deer remained peaceful throughout the hour spent outside.

Beyond the barricades and state troopers, the presentation was held in College Terrace with approximately 60 people in attendance. The speakers — Eldar Maider, Coral Mel and Aby Volcovich — were allotted fifteen to twenty minutes each to discuss a broad range of topics from the Oct. 7 attacks, their connections to Israel and their experiences serving in the IDF. 

Each speaker focused on a specific aspect, such as misinformation, humanitarian efforts and social media interactions. Photographs and videos of the devastation as well as themselves serving in uniform were featured in the slideshow. Each speaker focused on a specific area of the war which they have described to be a war against a terrorist organization, affirming their dedication to stand against Hamas. Coral Mel said during her segment, “Our war is not with the Palestinians but with the Hamas.”

“If Hamas lay down its weapon today, tomorrow, there won’t be any war. If Israel lay down its weapon today, there won’t be an Israel tomorrow,” said Eldar Maider, during the Q&A panel after the presentation. 

Though protests were mainly outside, a few students stood in the back of the room, holding posters that read “Free Palestine” and “Stop the U.S. War Machine” in silent protest. Three individuals unraveled a banner, which listed the names of “all of the Palestinian children that we know of that have been killed just between October and January, just ages zero to 17,” as described by one of the coordinators of the banner. Along with names, the banner was covered in red handprints. Closer to the beginning of the presentation, two protestors stood up, holding up a poster that read “Ceasefire Now” and chanting the phrase, “Land you have to kill for is not yours to take.” They were promptly escorted out.

Protestors outside College Terrace rallied with high energy despite the rain, expressing outrage at the actions of the Israeli government against Gaza, labeling them as “genocide.” They also cited rising Islamophobia in the US as a cause for their action.

One of the speakers, Bara Aljamal, mentioned his frustration over the stance SUNY has taken on this issue, particularly from SUNY Chancellor John King who has repeatedly asserted support for Israel before and after Oct. 7. “We are about peace, education and learning the justice and difference of what’s right and what’s wrong. You have no right to take sides at all.” Aljamal stated that this demonstration was also in favor of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement which has recently become more prominent across SUNY campuses.

The protestors outside starkly differentiate with the stance from inside, stating that Israel’s actions constitute a genocide — not war. One speaker stated that “This is not a war. Their goal is not to eliminate the ones who attack them on the seventh of October. They use this as justification to eradicate the Palestinians.” This was reflected in numerous chants reciting phrases such as “SSI you can’t hide, you’re supporting genocide” and “We want justice, you say how? Get the IDF out.”

Multiple speakers gave speeches reciting statistics, poems and political messaging. There was also a reading of the names of Palestinian civilians who have died in the current conflict, with the crowd chanting “say their names” after each one. Towards the end, speakers yelled out the names of the IDF soldiers inside which was responded with “shame” from the crowd.

Distinctly, there was a large body of Jewish students and community members protesting for Palestine. One banner read “Jews say: not in our name,” a phrase which was repeated by many throughout the crowd. This reflects a larger movement to separate Zionism from Judaism. One speaker, Garret Tanis, stated, “Judaism is a religion of peace just as Islam is. We firmly separate Zionism, which is a political ideology from Judaism, which is a religion, and we reject antisemitism, Islamophobia and all of their forms. 

Prior to the event, SUNY New Paltz anticipated the emerging conflict between students. The Office of Student Affairs sent an email on Monday, detailing their ongoing work with the UPD to “ensure that both the program and appropriate expressions of counter viewpoints can take place in a manner that protects the rights and safety of all participants.” Originally planned to take place in SUB 62/63, the event was moved to the College Terrace with entry being limited to physical tickets. All other individuals without one would be barred from attending. 

Another email sent the next day from President Wheeler, who linked SUNY New Paltz’s Free Speech Policies — policies that were printed and posted around the College Terrace at the time of the event — and affirmed the university’s stance to allow both events to occur.

As a result of the university measures, there was a large police presence. UPD and state troopers were posted both outside and inside the building. Every person who attended the panel was subject to having their bags searched and their bodies scanned by security personnel. During the presentation, the entrances were guarded by state troopers, and outside College Terrace, officers stood behind the barricade. 

As the attendees filed out, the protestors returned to the Atrium, with their chants ringing out across campus.